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Hovdey: Three power players at Queen B Summit

Friday, June 1st, 2018

The oddest thing will occur at Santa Anita Park on Saturday. The Grade 1 Beholder Mile, with a purse of $400,000, will feature a field of summit race significance. Amidst a field of six, champion Unique Bella will face her 4-year-old nemesis Paradise Woods, along with Vale Dori, a five-time local stakes winner and last year’s narrow Beholder runner-up.

The Beholder is part of a 10-race program that also features the restricted Snow Chief Stakes for products of the generously subsidized California breeding product … and that’s it. No surrounding array of graded events. No mega-card designed to drain the pockets of horseplayers for the day. No chance of the Beholder result being a great contest buried in multi-stakes coverage.

Given the name of the race, that is only fitting. Beholder, the horse, continues to occupy a special place in consciousness of the sport. The daughter of Henny Hughes won national championships in four of her five campaigns, an accomplishment equaled or surpassed only by the geldings Kelso and Forego. Her career record of 18 wins from 26 starts was capped with dramatic flair in a whisker-thin victory over Songbird in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, leaving the reaction to her retirement similar to that of the folks back in Chicago when Daisy Buchanan left for New York:

“The whole town is desolate,” Nick Carraway told her. “All the cars have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.”

The unlucky broodmare histories of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have put a degree of historical pressure on Beholder, who celebrated her eighth birthday this year by giving birth to her first foal, a colt by Uncle Mo. The little fellow will be christened Q B One – it’s a football thing, tied in with Beholder’s “Queen B” social-media nickname – singled out from a contest that attracted some 4,000 suggestions, according to her dedicated Spendthrift Farm web site. (My submissions included Beholden Mofield – reference too obscure – and Bemothanyoucanbe – too dumb.) She is back in foal to Curlin.

Paradise Woods, once the Beholder-in-waiting at the Richard Mandella hacienda, needs to get back on the roll promised by her near miss to Unique Bella five months ago in the La Brea. Vale Dori, now in her second race back, deserved and got a rest last summer after her stakes run and two heart-breakers to a very salty Stellar Wind.

As for Unique Bella, the big gray filly has not run since flubbing the break and finishing second in the Apple Blossom on April 13. Since then her jockey, Mike Smith, has been otherwise occupied with a large red lad named Justify, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Going into Saturday, though, Smith should be as fresh as his filly. Never overworked these days, with just 106 mounts this year entering Friday’s sport (at an average take of about $55,000 per ride), the Hall of Famer has been heard lately more than seen. There was a suspension to serve, plus a road trip to Texas, which adds up to Unique Bella being only Smith’s fourth mount since the Preakness, two weeks ago.

Smith, reached on Thursday hard at work filming a commercial for TVG, prefers to view Unique Bella’s Apple Blossom as a one-off throw-out.

“It was just one of those unfortunate things,” Smith said. “The weather was bad, it was windy as heck, all she could hear was people yelling. She kind of halfway squatted as soon as she walked in. She’s always been a little funny in the gate, but that day she wanted no part of it, man.

“When the gates opened, she had to get up before she could go forward. She wanted to run off after that, to try and catch up and do everything all at once. That never works, but even then you can’t fight ’em, because they’ll stop sooner than they were going to. After all that, I was shocked she still finished second.”

Breaking from the outside in the two-turn Beholder Mile, Smith sees no disadvantage.

“There’s plenty of speed in there, and she really doesn’t need to be on the lead,” he said. “I’m kind of excited to see what she does.”

Once the Beholder and the rest of the weekend is in the books, Smith will pack his tack and head for Belmont Park, where he once reigned as king of the room.

This time around he will be immersed in Triple Crown craziness as the man in Justify’s saddle. Riders like Stewart Elliott, Jose Santos, Kent Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, and Victor Espinoza can testify to the wild week in store. But at least, in Smith’s case, it has been only three years since the last Triple Crown winner instead of decades.

“They want me to do all kinds of stuff back there, but I’m trying to keep it at a minimum, and hopefully do things I can enjoy,” he said.

If Justify comes through in the Belmont, at 52 Smith would be the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. Espinoza was 43 on the day American Pharoah galloped home.

“I think it’s better off coming later in my career than earlier,” Smith said. “I’m so looking forward to it. The hard part right now is waiting.”

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